Biography of George Bernard Shaw (1856-1950)

Shaw was born in Dublin of Protestant Irish stock on 26 July 1856. His mother, Lucille Elizabeth (Bessie) Gurly, was a talented amateur singer and his father, George Carr Shaw, was a corn trader. He had two elder sisters, Lucille Frances (Lucy) who became a singer and Elinor Agnes (Yuppy) who died of TB in 1876 at the age of 21.

Shaw later complained that he hated Dublin, that his home life had been unhappy and that he was neglected. Of his father he wrote that he was "…in principle an ardent teetotaler… Unfortunately his conviction in this matter was founded on personal experience. He was the victim of a drink neurosis… a miserable affliction, quite unconvivial and accompanied by torments of remorse and shame."

Of his mother he wrote, "Technically speaking I should say she was the worst mother conceivable, always, however, within the limits of the fact that she was incapable of unkindness… she went her own way with so complete a disregard and even unconsciousness of convention and scandal and prejudice that it was impossible to doubt her good faith and innocence."

Bessie Shaw was taught singing by George John Vandeleur Lee, who produced concerts in Dublin and had developed his own system of teaching singing (Shaw later suspected him of charlatanism in order to pay the rent). He and the Shaw family set up house together in 1865.

Shaw went to several schools in Dublin including the Wesleyan Connexional School, but claimed that he learnt little and was largely self-educated. He grew up in a house full of music and, since his mother refused to teach him, he taught himself to play opera on the piano. He was widely read and, from visits to the National Gallery of Ireland, he learnt to appreciate fine arts.

When Lee left for London in 1873, Mrs. Shaw and her daughters followed him, leaving young George and his father in Dublin. Bessie - like Eliza Doolittle - hoped to make a living by teaching Lee's unique methods.

Shaw's father could not afford to send him to university, so he got a job working as a clerk with a firm of land agents in Dublin, but in 1876, at the age of 20, young George followed his mother to London.

For five years Bessie supported him whilst he worked at establishing himself as a writer. During this period (1879-83) he wrote five novels, all of which were turned down by publishers.

In 1879, he got a job with the Edison Telephone Company, and his experiences were reflected in his second novel, The Irrational Knot(eventually published by Annie Besant in her own paper Our Corner between 1885-7). Shaw continued to work hard at self-improvement, learning shorthand and studying languages and boxing, using his knowledge of the latter in his third novel Cashel Byron's Profession.

In 1881, Shaw became a vegetarian in the hope of curing the migraines he was plagued with. He was also a teetotaler and a non-smoker.

In 1884, he joined the Fabian Society where he met Sidney Webb and joined him in his attempt to make socialism respectable. Shaw became famous as a socialist agitator, speaking publicly (and for no fee) all over London, once or twice a week for the next 12 years. He spoke on political or social questions and this experience influenced his plays.

Shaw met William Archer who gave him a job as art critic on the flourishing weekly review The World. "He didn't know much more about painting than I," said Archer, "but he thought he did and that was the main point."

Shaw's reviews were observant, sensible and limited. His music criticism is regarded as having greater intrinsic value and is enlivened by his sardonic wit. Under the name of Corno di Bassetto he made himself famous as a music critic for The Star (1888-90). He was also a drama critic and had a running battle with the actor Sir Henry Irving, whose style he did not admire.

It was in the Reading Room of the British Museum that Shaw came across Karl Marx's Das Kapital, which was to profoundly affect him. He met Marx's daughter Elinor and her common-law husband, Edward Aveling, and found he had many dramatic and literary interests in common with them.

From 1879-1903, Shaw was a councilor for the London borough of St. Pancras, getting practical experience of social problems in local government. All his life he remained interested in questions of social reform. His plays and novels attacked slum landlords, prostitutes, the subjugation of women and sweat labour.

In 1881, Shaw fell in love with Alice Lockett and his wooing of her lasted for three years. This was the beginnings of a series of "philanders," as he called them.

It was to Mrs. Jenny Patterson, a widow 15 years his senior, that Shaw lost his virginity on his 29th birthday. She pursued him with a passion he found intolerable, and most of his future entanglements remained on a flirtatious level. His affair with the actress Ellen Terry was conducted entirely by letter.

In 1898, when they were both in their forties, he married Charlotte Payne Townshend, a wealthy Irish woman and fellow Fabian. Neither wished to marry, but Shaw, under the misapprehension that he was dying, proposed to her, offering her widowhood. It was an unorthodox, but happy, probably celibate, marriage that lasted until Charlotte's death in 1943.

On hearing of the marriage, Edith Somerville wrote in a letter "Charlotte is now Mr Bernard Shaw and I hope she likes it… He began as an office boy… and now he is distinctly somebody in a literary way, but he can't be a gentleman."

At 56, Shaw fell in love with the actress Mrs. Patrick Campbell. Their affair seems to have floundered when he drew back from sexual intimacy with her. Shaw appears to have preferred the idea of being in love to actually doing anything about it.

In 1890 Shaw gave a lecture on Ibsen to the Fabian Society and was behind a movement to produce his play Ghosts, which in 1891, was produced privately by the Independent theatre Society, as it could never hope for public production because of the censorship rules. J T Grein, the founder of the Society asked Shaw to write a play and the result was Widower's Houses (1892).

Shaw published his plays at his own expense in "reading editions." He wrote lengthy stage directions and character descriptions, more in the style of a novel than a play, as they were read - and admired - but deemed unsuitable for stage performance. In the 19th Century, only The Devil's Disciple had been staged, in 1897 in New York.

Shaw was actively involved in the campaign for the national theatre. He and his wife put up money to take over the Court Theatre for an experimental period for this purpose.

After a period in the doldrums - his style was not popular during the First World War when audiences sought lighter entertainment - Shaw was approached in 1923 by the Birmingham millionaire and founder of the Birmingham Repertory Company, Sir Barry Jackson, who wanted to stage the first British production of Back to Methuselah. This led, in 1929, to Jackson setting up the Malvern Festival. The first season was devoted entirely to Shaw's work.

Shaw agreed to his plays being filmed, but on condition that he retained complete control over the scripts. He permitted no cuts to his dialogue on radio, stage or film, but was cajoled into writing extra scenes and dialogue for his filmed work, which included Pygmalion(1938), Major Barbara (1940/1) and Caesar and Cleopatra (1945).

Between writing St. Joan (1923) and The Apple Cart (1929) Shaw produced no new plays, but he continued writing until his death. In 1947 when he was 92 he wrote: "Yet I cannot hold my tongue nor my pen. As long as I live I must write. If I stopped writing I should die for wanting something to do." Shaw died in 1950 at the age of 94, whilst pruning an apple tree.

After his death his reputation suffered a decline as new playwrights like Osborne and Wesker came to prominence. Ironically, his works came back into favour in 1958 when Alan Jay Lerner's adaptation of Pygmalion was produced on the London stage as My Fair Lady, with music by Frederick Loewe.

This was not the first adaptation of a Shaw play into a musical in 1908 an operetta, The Chocolate Soldier, based on Arms and the Man, was composed by Oscar Straus, but the triumph of My Fair Lady encouraged writers and other musical adaptations of Shaw's plays followed, but none with the same success. In 1968, Ervin Drake's musical based on Caesar and Cleopatra entitled Her First Roman flopped in the United States and in the same year Benny Green and John Dankworth's musical based on Shaw's life, Boots With Strawberry Jam, starring John Neville as Shaw and Cleo Laine as Ellen Terry/ Stella Campbell was produced at the Nottingham Playhouse. In 1983, Benny Green and Denis King's Bashville played a season at the Open Air theatre, Regents Park.

Most of Shaw's contemporaries regarded him as an irritating but talented egotist. Shaw perhaps summed it up best himself when he said, "I am not altogether an orthodox man."